Working multiple jobs is nothing new. With minimum wage lagging far behind the cost of living in the United States, many workers make ends meet through a patchwork of full- and part-time jobs — some working freelance gigs that add up to more than 40 hours a week without the benefits of full-time employee status. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in August nearly 7.5 million workers, or 4.7 percent of the overall workforce, were working more than one job. A 2021 report from the Pew Research Center found nearly 60 percent relied on gig work to meet basic needs. And now inflation is driving those numbers of supplemental-job seekers even higher.
But some workers have found a way to increase their income without increasing their overall hours through a practice they’re calling overemployment. Instead of clocking out of one job and into another, overemployed workers perform multiple full-time jobs simultaneously from home, their employers usually none the wiser.
I first heard about overemployment early in the coronavirus pandemic from a neighbor who knew of several software engineers holding two full-time jobs at once. More recently, Wired magazine reporter Fadeke Adegbuyi explored overemployment. Thousands of users on Reddit and TikTok, as well as the site overemployed.com, swap strategies, warnings and success stories about their overemployment experiences.
It’s not hard to see the appeal. Having multiple employers allows workers to diversify their labor the way smart investors diversify stock holdings. If they lose one job through a layoff or reorganization, they have another paycheck to fall back on. They often can enroll in multiple health-care plans, allowing them to coordinate benefits to keep medical costs down. And if done correctly, being overemployed doesn’t mean being overworked. By accepting junior-level positions and efficiently arranging their hours, workers can keep their personal and professional obligations in balance.
But there are challenges to overemployment. One of the biggest, to my mind, is the need for secrecy. While it’s not generally against any law to hold multiple jobs, employers generally have the right to fire anyone they catch doing it. As employers develop more sophisticated means of tracking remote workers’ activity (“tattleware” that monitors mouse movement and captures screenshots), workers are coming up with more elaborate ways of escaping detection (mouse jigglers, multiple devices, freezing employment and earnings data that can show up on background checks).
Proponents of overemployment argue that they’re simply turning the tables on years of exploitation and under-compensation.
Overemployment can also become a self-defeating cycle if workers lose sight of their financial goals. Extra disposable income can lead to lifestyle creep, and overemployed workers may find their extra income going to pay for services, takeout, and other needs they no longer have time or energy to tend to themselves.
While overemployment, as Adegbuyi writes, feels like “the new cheat code to financial freedom” for those who can successfully pull it off, the income gap between surviving and thriving is only widening for those without access to those kinds of jobs. That’s not the fault of overemployed workers, of course — although I wonder how experienced workers squatting in junior-level jobs might be affecting opportunities for entry-level candidates.
Finally, the overemployment phenomenon, like other pandemic-enhanced work trends, stirs up questions about what employers and full-time employees owe each other. Are employers paying for exclusive rights to an employee’s time and attention, or are they paying to have tasks completed regardless of when and where the work happens? If it’s the latter, what distinguishes an employee in that position from a contractor?
Opponents of remote work will probably seize on overemployment as evidence that unsupervised workers can’t be trusted. Some might argue that collecting 80 hours’ worth of pay for work completed in 40 hours is greedy and unethical. But if an overemployed worker is completing all tasks on time to employers’ satisfaction, what exactly is the problem?
As one Reddit user notes, it’s long been accepted for people to work for two or three low-paying jobs or gigs just to scrape by — “But as soon as we talk about getting two real paychecks, having secondary insurance, having twice the opportunity to save for retirement — it becomes a big ethical issue!”
Put that way, it seems the main objection to overemployment is not that people are working multiple jobs to earn more, but that they’re doing so without working themselves to death in the process.